Anxiety affects about 1 in every 13 people and is the most common of all mental disorders. It is a collection of disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Women are more likely to suffer from most anxiety disorders compared with men, though everyone is affected by anxiety at some point. It can have a negative effect on your physical health, mood, emotional well-being, and even your relationships with others. Ultimately, anxiety is caused by a response to a real threat or a perceived one.
These emotional or physical stressors convince your amygdala – which are a pair of small organs within the medial temporal lobes of the brain – to activate the fight or flight response to counter the impending danger.
The amygdalae are primarily responsible for the formation and storage of memories associated with emotions which include the emotions of anxiety and fear. They are not a ‘thinking’ part of your brain, but more of a ‘reacting’ part.
For the majority of people, anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of worry, nervousness, or agitation; usually about something that ‘might’ happen.
Interestingly, researchers found that amygdala size in childhood has been demonstrated to predict trait anxiety levels. And childhood anxiety has a demonstrable link to adult anxiety and mood disorders.
So what is the antidote? The body-mind connection is never more obvious than when someone is caught up in a state of anxiety. Fearful thoughts prompt a biochemical response in the body (racing heart, shallow breath, or dry mouth), and the mind interprets these physical symptoms as further evidence of possible danger, thereby triggering the body to release cortisol and other stress response hormones, ready to respond.
The aim is to teach the amygdala that, in reality, nothing is really wrong and stopping it from going so quickly into the fight-or-flight reaction in response to a particular trigger.
In one study, it has been found that participants on an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and spatial orientation, and a decrease in the size of the amygdala.
Sometimes lifestyle choices can trigger the anxiety cycle: drinking too much caffeine, for example, produces a physical response that the mind may associate with anxiety, which can unleash a habitual wave of worrisome thoughts.
Furthermore, sugar has been specifically identified to impact cognitive function, due to its involvement in insulin resistance – which can limit blood flow and nutrient delivery to brain tissue, impacting learning and memory.
Finally, sleep can have a major impact on anxiety. Insomnia makes the amygdala unable to regulate emotions. In fact, in another study, researchers found that just one night of sleeplessness changes your ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources necessary for objective cognitive processing.
Taking care of your diet and lifestyle is the first step you should take. Once you do this, dealing with the stressors in your life and retraining your amygdala through meditation can help you to stop reacting to the non-threatening stimuli that produce anxiety.
Dean Griffiths is the founder and CEO of Energy Fusion, the first interactive online platform to subjectively assess physical and mental health.
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